Drug courts work — I've seen it

Head of Baltimore's drug court says sometimes-maligned system saves lives, money

May 04, 2011|By Jamey Hueston

As the judge in charge of the Baltimore City District Court Drug Court for the past 17 years, and the current chairperson of the state's Judicial Conference Commission on Problem Solving Courts, I am disturbed by recent articles in this paper and elsewhere attacking drug courts as ineffective, essentially calling for drug use to be treated outside of the criminal justice system, and incorrectly asserting that drug courts are most effective for individuals who do not have a drug problem. This is patently incorrect, as proven by evaluations that document the significant effect of drug courts on reducing crime and saving lives.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, drug courts on average return to the community $7 for every $1 invested (and up to $27 for every $1 invested, when factoring in savings from reduced foster care placements, health care services and other cost offsets). A cost-benefit study of the Baltimore City Drug Court showed almost $3 million in total cost savings for all participants during the three-year study period.

These benefits were evident when I recently presided over the 38th Baltimore City Drug Court graduation. Thirty-three individuals whose families and communities had been devastated by their lengthy drug addiction boasted almost one year of drug-free and responsible behavior. These graduates have transformed heartbreaking accounts of loss and struggle into narratives of hope and success.

During my tenure, I have heard countless testimonies to the success of drug court from participants who have broken the cycle of addiction. One graduate who sold his children's Christmas gifts to support a 20-year heroin habit was invited to share his family's Christmas dinner after achieving sobriety. I remember "Sarah," who became partially blind while "chasing the high" but regained her children and freedom from drugs after completing drug court.

Not everyone successfully navigates the hazards of drug addiction in drug court. Some participants simply cannot break the shackles of drugs, especially in a city where temptation lurks on so many street corners. However, success is measured in different ways, and many of these nongraduates remain drug- and crime-free for longer periods, adopting many drug-free behaviors. When considering that a standard measure of treatment success is the reduction of drug-use days, our drug court has a profound impact on illegal activity and provides a strategy for saving criminal justice system costs and resources compared to traditional court processing.

In drug court, participants are supervised by dedicated probation agents. They receive biweekly drug testing and intensive treatment and are connected to a support group. Participants are monitored by a judge who motivates and holds them strictly accountable for their actions by providing incentives for positive behavior and sanctions to discourage inappropriate conduct, ranging from reprimands and community service to short jail stays to encourage behavioral changes. Additionally, a social worker tackles mental health problems and case managers offer a variety of support services. Participants receive care, supervision and services that are simply not possible in the traditional probation system.

Baltimore City's Drug Court serves the most seriously and chronically addicted, most of whom have been addicted to drugs for decades and come from impoverished areas replete with generational drug usage and violence. Most use $40 to $200 worth of heroin or cocaine daily and commit countless crimes to support their habits. Most would be imprisoned if not in drug court, and they would be contributing to the roughly $2.2 billion in costs to Maryland from illicit drug abuse, according to the Maryland Policy Report, "The Price Tag on Addiction."

Our participants enter drug court with their spirits broken, having lost everything: home, job, family, self-respect, health. At graduation, they are drug free, often for the longest period in their addiction history, having rebuilt lost lives and regained a sense of self-worth. Most enter unemployed and leave gainfully employed. They begin drug court consumed with feeding their addiction and end it nourishing their children and families. Most enter the program through the jail door and leave through the front door — to freedom.

It is difficult to quantify the value of a life returned to normalcy. However, the feeling when holding a drug-free baby born to a recovering drug-addicted mother is unrivaled. During my 20 years serving on the bench, after my career as a prosecutor, no courtroom experience has been as uplifting, powerful or transformative as drug court.

I would do it for another 20 years.

Jamey Hueston is presiding judge of the Baltimore City District Court's Adult Drug Treatment Court.

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